Ambassador Nikki Haley: Walking the Tightrope on Human Rights
By Barbara A. Frey | May 15, 2017
One of our key inquiries on the subject of human rights in the Gender Policy Report is how the face of U.S. diplomacy will be transformed by the Trump Administration. Of particular interest are key changes in U.S. institutions and personnel, which signal a shift on international protections for human rights and gender equality around the world. This inquiry leads us to the most prominent female presence in foreign policy, Nikki Haley, confirmed by the Senate on January 24, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Many were surprised when President-elect Trump offered Governor Haley the U.N. position, since she had been a vocal critic of his during the campaign, and had no discernible foreign policy experience to bring to the position.
Prior to her appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley was the Republican Governor of South Carolina, the first person of color to be elected to that position and – in her words – the “first girl governor” as well. She gained widespread recognition for her independent leadership in removing the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol and her refusal to support a proposed “bathroom bill” aimed at the rights of transgendered persons.
In her first several months representing the U.S. at the U.N., Ambassador Haley has walked a tightrope, her steps designed to demonstrate skill and gravitas on foreign policy issues, to maintain meaningful alliances, project strength and independence, while not straying too far from the party line set by her D.C. bosses. This tightrope includes a balancing act with regard to human rights. So far, she has not fallen off.
Haley’s work at the United Nations
As U.N. Ambassador, Haley must work the halls every day, pushing for the priorities of the Trump Administration with the 192 other governments whose national interests sometimes coincide and sometimes conflict with the U.S.’s current priorities. She is the face of a nation that was instrumental to the U.N.’s founding and has shown support for its priorities in the areas of security and human rights. Yet Haley is also the emissary of an administration that is frequently hostile in its tone as well as its proposed financial decreases for the international organization. Haley has on occasion mimicked Trump’s approach, warning U.N. diplomats in her first U.N. statement, “For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names.” She has not hesitated to commodify the United Nations a la Trump, insisting the institution must become more “valuable” for its member governments — a justification (or threat) for the United States to cut support if its interests are not serviced satisfactorily.
Given her potential for higher public office, Ambassador Haley is eager to exhibit her leadership both globally and domestically.
She attracted significant attention, for example, by inviting other Security Council ambassadors to the White House, where she sat prominently next to the President as he addressed the group at a 90-minute lunch. In early April, Haley delivered a powerful condemnation in the Security Council of Syria’s chemical attack, personally displaying gruesome photos of children who died from the attack. During this speech, Haley heaped blame on the Russian Government as well, accusing them of “closing their eyes to the barbarity,” by blocking every diplomatic effort to sanction Syria for its war crimes.
These boundary-pushing actions by Ambassador Haley have produced a notable degree of friction with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the other face of U.S. foreign policy, causing Tillerson to flex his supervisory muscles by requiring Haley to seek approval from the State Department for all non-official policy statements she intended to make. This move by Tillerson may also point to underlying gender power dynamics.
A fatal embrace of human rights?
Further distinguishing herself from Foggy Bottom, Ambassador Haley has landed upon human rights to frame her approach to her work at the U.N. At the onset of her term as chair of the Security Council during the month of April, Haley announced “for me, human rights are at the heart of the mission of the United Nations,” and sponsored a special session for the Council on the topic.
Haley’s emphasis on human rights invited skepticism, especially given the Trump administration’s short but dangerous track record on human rights (see our previous post). Still, human rights concerns – focused narrowly on civil and political rights – have since the Carter era been an area for bipartisan cooperation, and may still have legs with American voters as well. Human rights advocates are indeed wary of Haley’s embrace of the human rights agenda at the Security Council, fearing it serves as cover for an effort to abolish the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body which the U.S. cannot control and which the Ambassador has described as “so corrupt.”
Thus far, Haley’s human rights agenda has worked largely in unison with the Administration’s security interests.
At the Security Council debate on human rights, for instance, Haley highlighted North Korea’s political prisoners and use of forced labor, as well as respect for Israel and protection of religious freedom. All of these issues fit neatly within well-trodden bipartisan human rights concerns. Syria was also a target of shame in her remarks, but Haley went further, robustly criticizing Russia’s role in the atrocities in Syria — way beyond the criticism offered by other Trump officials.
Haley’s agenda for women’s human rights
Women, unfortunately, do not seem to exist in Haley’s human rights landscape, except as victims of trafficking. Reproductive rights certainly have no place on her agenda. Haley did not push back against reinstatement of the global gag rule, but instead expressed full support for it in front of the U.S. Senate, where she testified, “I am strongly pro-life, so anything we can do to keep from having abortions, or to keep them from not knowing what is available, I will support.” The “them” in this remark refers to millions of poor women with little access to reproductive health care.
Haley’s most visible role regarding global rights for women was when she chaired the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which included groups that oppose reproductive rights for women and support the criminalization of homosexuality.
Ultimately, Ambassador Nikki Haley is being viewed for her work at the U.N. through a predictably partisan lens. For some, she is a no-nonsense champion of U.S. human rights interests. For others, she represents the demise of the U.S.’s leadership on human rights. This seems to be the tightrope walk she enjoys.
Barbara A. Frey, Director, Human Rights Program, University of Minnesota
Henry Ziemer provided research assistance for this article. Photo by the United Nations